Football is a sport driven by contrasts: success and failure; hope and adversity; fate and luck. In English football at the moment the contrast between Arsenal and Liverpool’s fortunes is stark.
The Gunners have always been poor in November; history has taught us that. They average just 1.55 points in the calendar month for the past decade. The bad news is that given their injury record and run of upcoming fixtures, things could be set to go from bad to worst.
For Liverpool, things are looking decidedly more cheery. They’ve won their last three games in all competitions, and with an agreeable set of fixtures coming up they could well force their way into the top four of the Premier League – at Arsenal’s expense – by the time that Christmas comes around. You can forgive Arsene Wenger for lacking in festive spirit then….
As months go, November couldn’t have been much worse for Wenger and his Arsenal players. They started it with a 1-1 draw with local rivals Spurs, and that – in the grand scheme of things – wasn’t catastrophic.
But then came the international break….and the injuries started. Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere were already missing at this point, but then subsequent injuries to Mikel Arteta and latterly Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny and Santi Cazorla caused Wenger a huge headache. Subsequent knocks to Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin will have done little to please him.
And so what would ordinarily been a surprise 1-2 defeat at low flying West Brom became less of a shock a fortnight ago, and last time out Arsenal let a one goal lead slip against relegation threatened Norwich. As mentioned, this is hardly title-winning form which has to be the Gunners’ aspiration, and looking at their upcoming run of fixtures it doesn’t look like their woes are going to be eased any time soon.
On Saturday they host a Sunderland side that is undergoing something of a mini revival under Sam Allardyce’s leadership; two wins on the bounce will have restored some of their lost confidence. And then on the following Wednesday they travel to Greece to face Olympiakos in a do-or-die Champions League clash.
Is that the end of their problems? Not a chance. An away clash at Aston Villa should be a formality, but given their lack of form on the road it could present another couple of points dropped. And then there is the Christmas present of Manchester City at home and Southampton away.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Arsenal’s title race will be run before the calendar year has ended.
For Liverpool, December poses few demons. They have an almost fully-fit squad to choose from – Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke and Phillip Coutinho are expected to shake off their respective injuries soon – and that will fill them with joy heading into their crucial festive fixtures.
On Saturday they travel to take on the hapless Newcastle United – as away games go, they don’t come much more forgiving than this. Then they have another away assignment against FC Sion of Switzerland; but they’ve already qualified for the next phase of the Europa League, so there’s nothing to worry about there.
Their next three fixtures in the run up to Christmas then reads West Brom at home, Watford away and Leicester at home. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they were to pick up double figure points in the coming weeks then, and that would propel the Reds into the top four.
The common denominator here is clearly Jurgen Klopp, the German gaffer who has blown through Anfield on a wave of positivity. He has introduced his unique Gegenpressing style, and that has helped to add a certain defensive solidity to his side. And the tactical nous he showed in flooding the centre of the pitch against Manchester City to stop their key players performing, and the deployment Robert Firmino in a false nine role, shows that Klopp is ready for the hustle and bustle of English football.
If he can guide Liverpool into the top four heading into the new year, he will have done a supreme job.